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Monday, February 28, 2011

Ruin Preservation and the Etzel Museum

When we first presented our idea to study ruins, our advisers immediately warned us not to try something like the Etzel Museum in Tel Aviv. So what is this "infamous" building, which appears on the cover of White City, Black City as a metaphor for all that is wrong with Tel Aviv's hidden agenda?

The museum is designed within the ruins of a building that once was part of the Menashia neighborhood outside of Jaffa. It was designed by Niv, Schwartz & Schwartz, and completed in 1983. The only other remains from Menashia is a mosque. The neighborhood was conquered in 1948 by Etzel, a right-wing Jewish militant group from before the State of Israel. The ruins were primarily cleared, leaving only these two buildings.

The idea to turn this ruin into a museum arose in 1976, as a monument to Etzel members who died in the conquest of Jaffa. In a 1984 edition of Architecture in Israel, the architects explain that while visiting the site, they found a lone building which drew their attention.
"On the spot we suggested that it would be the site for the monument, to be used as a living museum that would explain to future generations both the story of the battle for Jaffa and the story of the Menashiya neighborhood, which was alive but is now gone, as it has made room for Tel Aviv.
...The uniqueness of the building is not its architecture but rather its power of survival, which allows it to be used for preserving the memory of the place. "(p.3)
In describing the design principles, the architects explain that they wished to freeze the ruins in time, and they wax poetically about the ruins and how they have been ravaged over time by the sea winds. However, they then epxlain that they want to introduce a glass box into the ruins to form the new museum. They felt this would not be intrusive and would allow the ruin to remain a ruin, and that the old and new would melt together.

In White City, Black City, Rotbard writes that this is the ultimate expression of his thesis. A Miesian glass box, set in the ruins of an Arab neighborhood, illustrates his point that Tel Aviv's pure white persona is a fraud. (p. 235) It should be noted that Rotbard follows this up immediately with an anecdote about Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, which is interesting but unrelated, and seems only to have been included to insidiously draw a parallel between the museum and fascism. (p. 237) Still, Rotbard sums up the oddity well, writing:
"In a strange way, the building makes use of ruins and ruin aesthetics in order to cover up the destruction and hide it. The building says the truth about the killing of Jaffa but in the same breath it also lies, when it uses the drama as "architecture" and "environmental art."
From my standpoint as a ruins researcher, I can understand why the architects thought this would work and would be nice symbolism, but I also understand why it falls flat. As in so many cases, the ruins here have been ruined. Had they been left alone, they truly would have been powerful. If a memorial had been built nearby, it could have been a tremendous space. I even feel like if the glass box had been built outside the stone walls, it would have been better. But instead what happened is that they stone walls have been robbed of their ruin-beauty and left sterile. This is particularly true on the back-side of the museum. In the front, the ration is perhaps 75% stone and 25% glass, and this proportion is at least palatable. Furthermore, the stone has enough detail to distract the eye and make the glass fall into the background. But in the back, we simply see too much of the glass - it is too dominant, too jarring. From a preservation point of view, there is a clear distinction between the ruins and the new museum. But from a ruins-preservation point of view, different rules apply. The intrusion of new, blatant walls to the ruins take away from the aesthetic and make the symbolism collapse. The ruins become a veneer, rather than the essence of the place.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I don't think that what Rotbard says is true, regarding the building making use of the ruins and ruin aesthetics to hide the destruction, that was done well by the simple destruction and razing of Manshiye's buildings. I think they even somewhat acknowledge the battle that took place here by using the Arab ruins as a part of the Etzel Museum.
    The architects' theory behind the glass box working well with the ruins sounds great, but I think that you are right, Josh, it somehow falls flat in reality. From a ruins-preservation perspective it doesn't do the job, the ruins are swallowed up. But from a traditional historical-preservation perspective I think that it is not so bad. it could have been done better, but it also could have been done worse...